Well played Mr. Romney. Very well played indeed.
Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a genius political move. Less clumsy than the infamous Willie Horton ad, it is a more elegant and refined racial appeal for a slightly more civilized "colorblind" age.
As such, Mitt Romney's suggestion that Barack Obama is "not working" deftly draws on a set of stereotypes from the American popular imagination where black people, and black men in particular, are depicted as lazy and not self-sufficient. This is one of the core attributes of what social scientists have termed "symbolic racism."
This stereotype is central to contemporary right-wing political discourse, and can trace its lineage back to the Southern Strategy under Richard Nixon, and through to Ronald Reagan's mobilization of anti-black sentiment with his allusions to "welfare queens" and "strapping young black bucks" who buy steaks with food stamps. As part of this pattern, the 2012 Republican campaign has featured such onerous moments as Rick Santorum's suggesting that black Americans are parasites who live off of white people, as well as Newt Gingrich advising young people of color (because they are especially lazy and pathological) that they should be janitors in order to learn a "work ethic."
The polite and more refined bigotry that drives Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is more careful than that of his Tea Party GOP brethren. However, it still plays off of the same sentiments and crude racial stereotypes about African Americans. Moreover, Romney's more "polite" racism resonates because it exists in a right-wing imaginary that considers Obama a "Socialist," wallows in birtherism, and has marshaled faux populist zeal in order to mark out clear boundaries of civic belonging where to be a "real" American requires that a person be White.
In all, the right-wing echo chamber is unapologetic in its use of racial stereotypes, mobilization of white racial resentment, and outright race prejudice. Romney can fly above the racist fray, but still benefit from how such attitudes have helped to prep the political battlefield for his success.
Romney's devious narrative about President Obama's lack of success, incompetence, and implied laziness is masterful on a number of levels.
1. The claim that Barack Obama isn't working has a veneer of plausible deniability. Romney claims that the slogan is "historical" in nature, borrowing from Thatcher's anti-Labour campaign in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s. Through this logic, there is no racial animus at work; racism cannot possibly be present in the suggestion that Barack Obama isn't working because the slogan is inspired from events both decades ago, and in another country.
In the United States, and given how the color line has structured American life, operates in the country's collective subconscious, and provides a set of scripts which impact our perceptions of one another, the wellsprings of Romney's slogan are of little importance.
Question: would be an equivalent silence if a politician campaigning for high office suggested that his Jewish rival was cheap? Or that his Asian-American competitor for the same office was devious, sneaky, or untrustworthy? Here, I would suggest that the precarious position of blacks in American society makes them uniquely vulnerable to the use of racial appeals in political discourse.
It is also important to note how language involves both the transmission, reception, and circulation of ideas between a speaker and the audience.The repeated suggestion that a black man "isn't working" signals to deeply held biases that link together the black body, black personhood, and stereotypes about poverty, work ethic, and respectability. A listener, or in this case a voter, does not have to be conscious of how these concepts motivate his or her behavior. As research on racial attitudes and political behavior has repeatedly demonstrated,white voters "get" these racial cues and are quite responsive to them--conservatives and right-leaning independents especially so.
2. Any effort to call out Romney's use of racial stereotypes would play into the politics of white racial resentment and white backlash that came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. The associated and invented language of "the race card" and "reverse racism" are based on a premise that white supremacy is a thing of the past. Since the election of Barack Obama, the right-wing media and other elites have been able to push this narrative even further--white people are now oppressed, and despite all available sociological data that suggests otherwise, anti-white racism is now a plague upon the land. To attack Romney's campaign slogan is to fuel the howls of white victimology.
3. In the age of conservative "colorblindess," racism is defined by intent. This is a function of the personalization of race prejudice wherein racist social structures and institutional arrangements of power are conveniently ignored. Racism is universal. It is no longer a sin unique to white people. Consequently, the intent behind a person's words and deeds trump both the context and consequences of their actions. If Romney were to deny that his ad was "racist"--which Romney would most certainly do--one of the evasions would be that "he did not intend it that way." The same deflection would be flipped around on the critic who pointed out the problematic nature of Romney's appeal to Obama's imagined laziness in order to win over white voters. In keeping with the colorblind/reverse racism script, Mitt Romney would now become a victim, as the act of calling someone a "racist" in post-Civil Rights America is a bigger sin than racism itself.
4. Accidents and coincidence. Mitt Romney's choice of a slogan that leverages one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted stereotypes about black men in American society (next to the myth of the black rapist) is carefully designed and painstakingly chosen. Such a choice is far from happenstance. Romney did not personally select the language "Obama Isn't Working." His consultants (a cadre of psychologists, marketing experts, political advisers, and focus groups) perfected the language, visuals, and narrative of Romney's campaign ad. The way that the campaign mines white animus and stereotypes towards the country's first black president, while skillfully playing along the edge of being an overt racial appeal is a delicately choreographed balancing act: this grace does not come without much practice and reflection.
Mitt Romney's "Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a smart bomb aimed at white Independents (and other right-leaning fence-sitters) who can be mobilized to vote against Obama by carefully constructed appeals which simultaneously play on racial anxieties, but carefully avoid naked racism. Ultimately, Mitt Romney is vulnerable on many issues such as his gangster capitalist roots, insincerity, aloofness, religion, the Tea Party GOP's failed economic policies and obstructionist behavior, as well as being the flag carrier for a party on the brink of demographic suicide. Romney's flank is also exposed because he is the nominee for a political party that is possessed by Culture Warriors whose views are outside of the American mainstream. These are weaknesses to be exploited.
However, I would suggest that folks not sally forth and engage Romney regarding the racial invective present in his "Obama Isn't Working" campaign theme. To do so, would be to fight on Romney's chosen terrain. Nor would such an engagement offer up many political gains. The cause would be noble; the battle would still be lost.
Once more Mr. Romney, well played, very well played indeed. You are a worthy foe.